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Colombia’s Seismic Electoral Victory 

Three questions to Paulo Tovar

Colombia’s Seismic Electoral Victory 
 Paulo Tovar
Coordinator of Participation and Dialogue at FIP

Colombia has elected on Sunday June 19, 2022, its first left wing president Gustavo Petro who won by a narrow margin against his anti-establishment rival, Rodolfo Hernández. Although this election marks a tidal shift for the country, Paulo Tovar, Coordinator for Participation and Dialogue at the Fundación Ideas para la Paz (FIP), explains the new government will have to cope with both a divided Congress and society in order to carry out its ambitious agenda. 

For the first time in Colombia's history, a left-wing president was elected. What does a Petro victory mean for the country?

A Petro victory is historic in the Colombian political context. Gustavo Petro is the first left-wing candidate ever elected to the Palacio de Nariño, Colombia’s presidential residence in Bogotá. This election was also unprecedented in voting turnout. Colombia saw its highest turnout since 1998, with 39 million voters in a country of over 50 million. Historically, elections in Colombia are usually marked by high abstention rates (as the country does not have compulsory voting laws). It is worth mentioning however that Petro won the runoff election against anti-establishment candidate Rodolfo Hernández by a very narrow margin. He beat his competitor by three percentage points (50.47% of the total votes compared to the 47.27% for Hernández, or a 700,000 difference in votes). 

Petro's election can be seen as the continuation of a process initiated in the 1990s with the adoption of the Colombian Constitution, which is progressive and acknowledges ethnic, cultural and political diversity in the country. The Constitution’s inclusion of indigenous and Afro-Colombian peoples' rights for instance heralded a new level of visibility, legitimacy and empowerment for these groups. In this same line Francia Márquez, Petro's vice-presidential running mate, also made history as Colombia's first Black female vice president. She is an outspoken environmental and human rights activist and has gained enormous political momentum on the basis of her progressive platform. 

Peace negotiations, despite their crucial importance, have not been central to this year’s presidential campaign in Colombia.

From an economic perspective, Gustavo Petro’s agenda is quite disruptive. During his presidential campaign, he emphasized the need to focus on Colombia's rural territories and hopes to undertake agricultural reforms, including creating so-called "smart tariffs" to protect Colombia's countryside from agricultural imports. Another core part of his platform is to shift away from Colombia's "old extractive economy" based on oil and coal, to one focused on other industries in an attempt to repel the effects of climate change.

Finally, he plans on carrying out important fiscal reforms, such as increasing taxes on the rich to pay for antipoverty programs and improved public services. For many Colombian voters, worries concern funding for the aforementioned policies, particularly finding revenue to compensate for lost fossil fuel money. They also fear a break on investment or even expropriations. 

Also on the table is the issue of peace and the fate of the 2016 peace deal between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC). The topic of peace negotiations has been a heated one during the last two presidential elections. It was a determining factor when it came to Gustavo Petro’s attitude, representative of many in Colombian society who have hesitated between being more inclined to enter negotiations or rather fight directly. Political concerns over the last five years have since shifted. Peace negotiations, despite their crucial importance, have not been central to this year’s presidential campaign. The social question took over the agenda of concerns that were debated and were at the forefront for many Colombian voters during this election.

On foreign policy matters, Petro’s election could bring Venezuela and Colombia closer. Petro recently reached out to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro about reopening the border between both countries, likely ending a long diplomatic impasse and reactivating trade. Chile is another country where we are expecting increased partnership, even more than Venezuela, as Petro is politically closer to Chilean President Gabriel Boric than he is to Maduro. Finally, Petro can use the opportunity to work with the United States to jointly address climate change, as it is a priority for the Biden administration.

What would you say constitutes the biggest challenges for the incoming administration?

Creating a national consensus across sectors and negotiating with a divided Congress will be Gustavo Petro’s biggest challenge. To push through his ambitious agenda, he will need time and, most importantly, a majority in Congress. Petro’s center-left coalition, Pacto Histórico (Historic Pact) holds about 15% of the seats in Congress, far from the needed majority to carry out his proposals. His slim victory does not help in this respect either. He will be left with little choice than to give in to dialogue and compromise, and will need to negotiate with citizens across economic and political sectors (that currently do not support him) in order to move forward with proposals. This negotiation may even lead his most disruptive proposals to become a bit more traditional.

He has already started to branch out to political leaders outside of the coalition, but it remains unclear how much support he will gain. Petro is also known for his strong personality, and has been described as stubborn and intransigent. Such character traits might not play in his favor. Nonetheless, Petro has been an important figure in the Colombian political landscape for the last thirty years. He is not only a former guerrilla member (he was part of the M-19, an urban guerrilla group active in the 1970s and 1980s) but was also involved in the drafting of the Colombian Constitution. 

Creating a national consensus across sectors and negotiating with a divided Congress will be Gustavo Petro’s biggest challenge.

He was furthermore congressman twice (from 1991 to 1994 and from 1998 to 2006) and was finally mayor of Bogotá from 2011 till 2015.

A second challenge for the incoming administration has to do with his vice-presidential pick, Francia Márquez. She has often been criticized for her lack of experience in politics. She will probably embody a more political role in the symbolic sense, as an environmental grassroots leader, she is associated as the voice of communities that are traditionally excluded (women, Afro-Colombians and Indigenous people). Her rapid rise is expanding a new political Black feminist perspective in Colombia. 

A final issue at stake relates to peace implementation. The challenge for the new government is not only to acknowledge, but also to pursue the work done by its predecessor. This implies continuing negotiations with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) and deepening the dialogue with other factions in order to root for peace. The main mistake of Iván Duque, Colombia's former president, was to try to wipe out the work of his predecessor and to start again from scratch.

Zooming out and looking at regional dynamics, can we talk about a new 'pink tide' in Latin America? 

Gustavo Petro is the latest case of a series of Latin American left-wing candidates who have come to power on a wave of social discontent over political class, economic inequality and stagnation. From 2020 onwards, the list includes Luis Arce in Bolivia, Pedro Castillo in Peru, Xiomara Castro in Honduras, and more recently, Gabriel Boric in Chile. And looking at Brazil, as of right now, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is leading the polls for the October 2022 presidential election. 

Although there is a certain form of harmony between these different governments across Latin America, this shift to the left should not be considered definitive. The vote was indeed very tight between Petro and his populist opponent, Rodolfo Hernández. As Colombian democracy matures and solidifies, this evolution should rather be seen as an entry into a political oscillation between left and right-wing parties in power. That alternation is very much influenced by the one observed in the US. A government like Biden's opens opportunities for progressive governments in Colombia, and the Latin American region in general. However, if a Republican returns to power after the 2024 presidential race, it may favor more conservative options in the region.



Copyright: Daniel MUNOZ / AFP

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